The Huffington Post had a pretty cool idea! What if they tackled this whole “New York City” thingamajig head on? What if the loss of Times Square sex shops, Off-Track Betting parlors, and “rock clubs” (in particular, one named CBGB) have changed the deepest nature of our city, making us dull and average and prepackaged like American cheese? Wouldn’t an exploration of that be fascinating? Plus, give good SEO?
We know it’s a bit of a cheap shot to rib HuffPo (and, as a reader points out, the article was syndicated from the AP, which possibly makes it worse), but this recent attempt to explore our city’s psyche — “As Edgy NYC Disappears, Does Its Character Go Too?” — was especially grating. This old chestnut, HAS NEW YORK LOST ITS EDGE?, or some manner of it, has been bandied about for so many years that the only “edgy” thing about it is how it feels against the inside of our brain. Please. Stop.
“Edgy.” What is that, even? We’re pretty sure that very few people who lived in New York back in those gritty, real days of getting mugged by drug addicts in the Village called it “edgy.” “Sucky,” maybe. “Dangerous.” “A bummer.” But regardless of what it was called, and how it has changed, can we acknowledge the following?
“Character” is not “edge.” Sometimes having an edge can make you a character, but character is not edge. “Edge” is also not, forever and ever, seedy sex shops and smoke-filled betting ops. Edge changes as well; all the sooner to be replaced by whatever the newest “edge” is. When we look back from our fancy flying-robot-desktops in 2040 there will surely be those who describe our New York in 2011 as edgy because of its snarky bloggers who’d just as soon stab you with their unused pens — and who bemoan the loss of that edge in their present day environment. (Remember the old days? Weren’t they grand?)
But perhaps the one unchanging character trait in the hundreds of years of New York City history is its changeability, and the fact that people will continue to complain about how we’re just not how we used to be. Like this:
Around countless corners, the weird, unexpected, edgy, grimy New York — the town that so many looked to for so long as a relief from cookie-cutter America — has evolved into something else entirely: tamed, prepackaged, even predictable.
But what’s predictable, really? That people will continue to move here to do more than they can accomplish elsewhere? Regardless of how many Starbucks we get?
Clearly, articles like these are oversimplifications. Clearly, the entire city has not swapped chain restaurants for all of its “beer gardens” (what?). Yes, sometimes the iconic has been replaced with the ATM. But sometimes the old diner closed because it wasn’t very good anymore. Sometimes mistakes or bad decisions have been and continue to be made; certain changes are not always for the best — but you can’t say that the ability to constantly evolve and develop isn’t.
So there’s good and bad. That doesn’t mean New York doesn’t have character. That means it’s complicated. It always has been.
It’s been said before, but we’ll say it again: New Yorkers like to complain. We are vocal. We are nostalgic. We are your quintessential grass-is-always-greener types. It’s in our nature. Hence, the article’s quote from Suzanne Wasserman, director of the Gotham Center for New York City History at the City University of New York: “I think that’s also part of the New York character,” she says, “that ‘Things were better when …'” But she’s not saying things were better then. She’s saying some of us like to say they were.
The thing that sucks most about articles like these is that they proceed to trickle across the United States confusing the rest of America about New York’s supposedly lost character, New York’s weird love of street fights and switchblades and dank semen-stained haunts, New York’s just not being like the rest of us.
The truth is that New York is not like the rest of them — but it’s not in the way these articles attempt to promote. It’s not about loss of distinctiveness. The distinction is in how we transition from one stage to the next; how we continue to move forward while standing up for the mom and pop shop at the same time we strive for success along with our special brand of joie de vivre. It’s how we find a balance between the old and new that doesn’t make us either irrelevant or sell-outs. It’s why we continue to love living here, and why articles like this continue to be written about us, so the “rest of America” can talk about how New York has lost its character while also — we’re onto you! — talking about New York.